Coach Gregg Popovich has said that he expects to feature Kawhi Leonard on offense this year, knowing that Father Time will eventually see that the Big Three fade into the sunset as David Robinson did before them. Just as the Admiral's son is enjoying a breakout season at wide receiver for Notre Dame, the Spurs want to put their own young star in a position to do the same.
The Spurs may have difficulty fulfilling this goal because the Spurs offense doesn't feature anyone. When at its best, the Spurs offense doesn't try to get the ball to any particular player. Instead, the offense gets the ball to whoever on the floor has the best shot. This is a different approach than many teams -- the most notable examples being the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony.
Saying the Spurs don't generally run plays does not mean there the Spurs don't have an offensive scheme. A play dictates what everyone does, regardless of the defense (much like a football team will call a play, and everyone's role in that play is pre-ordained). The Spurs run different sets, which basically dictate where the players start out. Where they go, and where the ball goes, is then determined by how the players read and react depending on what the defense does. The Spurs special skill, honed by the coaching staff over the years, is reading and reacting quicker than other teams - and making the right decisions. Of course, making the shots that flow from those decisions helps too. Good shooters make good coaches. Of course, good coaches make good shooters too -- by getting the shooters good shots, and giving them the freedom to shoot them with confidence.
Keeping in mind that the Spurs rarely call plays at all, let alone for a particular player, what are some ways the Spurs might fulfill their stated goal of featuring their young star?
More playing time
The Spurs manage their players' minutes better than any team in the league. However, while the Spurs have focused on minimizing the Big Three's minutes, especially in the regular season, Kawhi's minutes can surely go up. The Spurs' 23-year old star-in-waiting averaged only 29 minutes per game in the regular season last year, down 2 minutes per game from the year prior. To put that in perspective, D-League escapee Kendall Marshall averaged that same 29 minutes per game for the Lakers last year. Perhaps the Spurs could bump up 23-year old Kawhi's minutes to what 53-year old Dirk Nowitzki played for the Mavs last year -- 33 minutes per game. Note that Kawhi averaged 32 minutes in the playoffs last year, against top competition. As you may recall, he did just fine.
More run with the second unit
Last year, Kawhi spent more time with the first unit than the season before. When Kawhi plays with the first unit, the ball will naturally be in Tony Parker's hands much of the time. Since TP is one of the best pick and roll players in the world, that is where the ball should be, which means it will not be in Kawhi's massive hands as much. Theoretically, the Spurs could make Kawhi the ball-handler in some pick and roll situations, but I do not expect that to happen. However, on the second unit, the ball will naturally find its way to Kawhi more often.
This is especially true for the first months of the season with Patty Mils out. While we will be deprived of seeing Mills' "3 from Down Under" shooting until 2015, everyone on the second unit will have more opportunities. If Kawhi sees more time with the reserves, some of those additional scoring and creating opportunities will be his -- and they may come against the lesser defenders that populate most teams' bench units. Further, while on the second unit, the Spurs could put him in the post more, especially if paired with Boris Diaw and/or Matt Bonner - giving him "close to the basket" opportunities not available when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are on the floor with him.
Some might want Kawhi to become the Manu of the second unit, and while I want Kawhi to look for his opportunities to attack and create more, his looks need to come through the flow of the offense. It is a bit early to toss him the ball with 7 seconds on the shot clock, as the Spurs have done with Manu, and say "Go ahead and create". I would not ask any 23-year old forward to do what a unique talent like Manu has mastered over the years.
The other team in L.A., the Clippers, will likely be the Spurs' primary competition in the West, especially until Kevin Durant comes back. The Clippers throw more lobs that anyone in the league and I believe the Spurs throw the least. Pop has clearly made the decision that the highlight reel fun of the lob pass doesn't justify the practice time and risk of the turnover (or injury), which made this play during Game 5 of the Finals such a shock. Kawhi may be the one Spur where the odds of completing the pass make it worthwhile, especially with Boris Diaw delivering.
Interestingly, that set play was similar to one we used to run at Claremont. Just as Pop (while at Pomona-Pitzer) may have borrowed it from us, we borrowed it from the Lakers. The Claremont coaches attended a coaching clinic with Pat Riley one summer, and he essentially taught us the Lakers Showtime fast break: Magic at the point, Scott and Worthy on the wings, and Kareem and Rambis either filling the post or trailing. We ran the D-3 version of that break for several years, and the Spurs brought it out of mothballs in Game 5. The back screen for Kawhi was essentially the same screen we would set for our all-conference post player Henry Albrecht -- the same screen the Lakers set on Kareem's man as the last option on the Showtime break. The Spurs ran it against the Heat 30 years later as a set play after a sideline in-bounds. Getting Kawhi opportunities to catch and score on lob passes would certainly help feature him more in the Spurs offense.
In my last piece, I talked about two skills Kawhi added and improved before last season. Once he recovers from his eye condition, it will be interesting to see if Kawhi worked this past summer on adding some post moves, and a counter. For instance, he was shooting an MJ-esque turn-around from the post in the preseason. Most great wing players, from Jordan to Kobe to Lebron, developed a post-up game as they matured. (This includes both scoring from the post, and passing out of the post after defenders are forced to double.) Kawhi should, and probably will, do the same.
One way the Spurs could get Kawhi post-up opportunities would be to have him act as the screener on 1-3 (point guard-small forward) ball screens. If the defense switches, Kawhi could then slide into the post, only now with a point guard trying to defend him.
One thing to keep in mind: Being an effective screener is a skill, and setting great screes takes time and practice. This is especially true in the Spurs pick and roll attack, which often asks the screener to set one, two or even three ball screens in succession. One of the worst things a screener can do is try to help out the ball handler with a last-minute move into the defender's path, often leading to both a turnover and a foul. In this case it would be an extra foul on the Spurs' key defender. Coaching the screener to remain stationary, despite the temptation to move, is key. Like every player on the Spurs, Kawhi sets screens all game long, but he has spent very little time setting screens on pick and rolls. As smart as he is, he won't become an outstanding screener like Tiago Splitter overnight.
I don't know if the Spurs and Kawhi will follow any of the specific possibilities listed above. They may not need to. Part of what makes a player great is the attitude that he is the best player on the floor. Kawhi already has that attitude on the defensive end. We know he will continue to improve his individual offensive skills -- ball-handling, shooting, and passing -- and as time goes by, Kawhi's mind-set will follow. If there is one thing Pop encourages, it is converting that mind-set to action.
The "Live Look-Ins" into a team's huddles shown on TV are generally meaningless: Every NBA team has a deal with the networks -- you can look into the huddles, but you can't reveal any strategy. However, in the 2013 Finals, there was finally a meaningful look-in, not because there was strategy revealed, but because an attitude was being encouraged. Pop told the second unit (including Gary Neal, who took the advice to heart):
Move the basketball, you are getting great shots, just be confident and let 'em fly. Get your name in the paper.
If Kawhi can master that attitude, he will have plenty of opportunities to see his name in the paper too.